Whenever I’m asked about poetry communities, I’m quick to mention my very first poetry community: my mother’s living room, wherein she wove narratives about my percussionist uncle, mambo nights at the Palladium, parties that lasted until daybreak, and her gymnastic excellence during her high school years. I can recall the sofa where she wrote her nightly journal entries in the most exquisite cursive with her ballpoint Parker pen. The human impulse to document is still a mystery to me. If living is a matter of being where you are, then any attempt at reshaping memory is a risky proposition, but that’s where I was initiated into the fellowship of documentarians. 

After her living room, my definition of community pivots to a UPACA Houses stoop where I overheard serialized, adulterous gossip, myths about stellar skyhooks, and shootouts, and braced myself for the unforgiving hawk-like winds that met you at the corner. This is where I learned that storytelling is a collective endeavor, and everyone has chip-ins. 

From that remembrance, I would slide into Harlem nights where, nurtured by the legendary literary agent Marie Dutton Brown, I was introduced to poets who wrote in the traditions of the Harlem Renaissance, the Black Arts Movement, The Last Poets, and the Umbra Poets, except we were also influenced by hoodoo, blues, Impressionism, bebop, house music, and Public Enemy. We traversed the city, crashed open-mics, convened with collectives across the country with names like the Dark Room. Community never stays still.

From there, my recollection rides the  6 Train to Astor Place and walks east to the Nuyorican Poets Cafe or A Gathering of the Tribes, where I found a school of poetry that was nurtured by outlaw tendencies, survival tactics, and, at that time, in the early nineties, punk rock anarchy, riots, and Loisaida avenues where a poet’s ashes were flung into the night as a promesa

Shout out to Long Island University Brooklyn, Brooklyn Moon Cafe, DreamYard Project, Youth Speaks, UrbanWord NYC, louderARTS, Acentos, VONA Writing Workshop, Fordham University, Borough of Manhattan Community College, Cave Canem, Asian American Writers Workshop, CantoMundo, Idyllwild Poetry Society, Center for Black Literature, CentroPR, Poets House, leagues of slam poets, my poet colleagues at Phillips Exeter Academy, and my fellow Academy of American Poets Laureate Fellows. Building community is like editing an anthology: you always run the risk of leaving someone out, so apologies if I forgot to include any community that embraced me in my twenty-five years of poeting. Please know that I am not half the poet I claim to be without you. Community is like a good freestyle rap; it gains momentum as more people join the cipher. 

The playwright, poet, and novelist Jessica Hagedorn once told me that you find community in places where you least expect it. I immediately thought about the four corners at 123rd Street and Lexington in East Harlem where I first composed poems from the “top of my dome,” as we used to say, letting the universe reveal its laughter and tragedy in the course of one transaction, one new hip-hop dance, one missed bus, one prank, one resounding guffaw, one long cry, one wrong car ride, and the untimely death of a homie. That specific location is where I first created in and from a community; that’s where my childhood buddies contributed to my process; that’s where the authentic self was at a high premium.

What I learned about community growing up in East Harlem is that you can’t build a workshop without an education. It’s one thing to teach meter, but it’s another to teach a poet from whence their poetry is born, and why it is often created out of necessity. I have no administrative ambition, but if I were the principal of a school, I would make  morning recitations of  poems a mandatory part of the day—required like breakfast, singing the national anthem, or scanning yourself present. 

Debates over poetry’s efficacy and purpose continue, and I believe that one line of poetry—that’s it, one line—can provoke a human being into action, if not reflection, and provide us with a motto for living. In the face of climate disaster, xenophobic narratives, book banning, whole regions of America drowning in fentanyl, influence, and loneliness, poetry might be the community that we are all waiting for.  

If you took a taste test of sorts and asked people to respond to the word poetry, seven of those ten would look for the nearest exit. But three is enough to build a community, and you can call them the Tres Leches Crew. 

There are days where I imagine myself as a literary ronin of sorts. Writing poetry can be a lonely endeavor, and community can be hard to locate. I like to think that I can pay the price of the ticket and rock with any school of poets, but you discover that one must create community. Recently, I visited the East Harlem Poets Collective, a project that I developed as part of my laureate fellowship. I saw a student recite a poem that I wrote almost twenty-five years ago, “Where I’m From.” Most teachers use this poem as a model for anaphora or to explore the poetics of place. The student wrote her own version of “Where I’m From” in Spanish. I remember her smile after she finished reciting her poem, and I thought, that’s what a community of poets reaps: an alliance of mother tongues. The experience of bringing poetry to my old neighborhood wasn’t possible without the partnership of Teachers and Writers Collaborative, an organization that has been sending teachers into schools for almost five decades. When I walked into the Tito Puente Education Complex, I knew that I was providing a young person with an opportunity to witness, to see their vision in print, and to rejoice in their celebration of self.

Willie Perdomo is the author of several collections, including Smoking Lovely: The Remix (Haymarket Books, 2021); The Crazy Bunch (Penguin Books, 2019) and Smoking Lovely (Rattapallax, 2003), winner of the PEN/Beyond Margins Award (now, the PEN/Open Book Award). In 2023, he was named an Academy of American Poets Laureate Fellow. Perdomo will create “A New York State of Poetry,” a workshop and reading series, and the East Harlem Poetry Collective, which will offer craft workshops and coach local youth poets to facilitate workshops in their neighborhoods. He will also produce Street Poetry is My Every Day, a podcast celebrating the history of poetry in New York through interviews, poetry readings, and performances in nontraditional spaces.